After Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) confesses a harrowing tale of childhood sexual abuse, the priest in the booth on the other side of the pew only responds with curiosity and not shock. “Now you must tell me the details” states the priest, as if savoring every salacious detail. It is a strange response to which Clerici immediately snaps “it’s almost as though you think sodomy is a more mortal sin than killing somebody, padre.” What makes this tête-à-tête fascinating is not merely the discourse subverting the notion of sinner and saint, but the fact that the camera eventually reveals, just for a brief moment, that Marcello’s fiancée Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) is sitting a few feet away blissfully unaware.
It is at this point where Bernardo Bertolucci’s much heralded film, The Conformist, officially plants its feet on the ground and declares its independence from all preconceived notions. When Marcello is initially introduced in the film, Bertolucci gives the impression that he is a confident womanizer with a taste for espionage, but it becomes apparent that Marcello is no James Bond. His cool exterior does not convey strength, but rather masks cowardice. He has no qualms about ordering Agent Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) to beat up his mother’s lover/driver, but hesitates whenever he is in the position to inflict violence on others himself.
Marcello is the perfect embodiment of the inevitable failure of Mussolini’s Fascist Movement. He craves the sanctuary that conformity supposedly brings, but fails to realize that there is no such thing as a “normal” person. It is in this quest to align with people who are like himself that his lack of conviction exposes itself. This is why The Conformist is such a compelling film to watch. The plot is not concerned with the inner workings of fascist spies. Instead it ponders if Marcello has the fortitude to actually fulfill his mission of arranging the assassination of his former college mentor, Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), who is now a political dissident.
Similar to Nagisa Ôshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, a film that uses sexual expression to symbolically rebuke the rise of fascism, The Conformist utilizes sex as a metaphor for the repressive nature of the fascist regime. The sight of two women dancing together is seen as an affront to traditional values. Even Marcello is a walking bundle of contradictions when it comes to his sexual prowess. He constantly strives to reclaim the sense of normalcy that was stolen via the sexual abuse he suffered as a boy, but finds it hard to adhere to the “normal” notions of not cheating on one’s wife.
It is no coincidence that he is drawn to two women who not only exude sexual freedom, but also remind him of his damaged past. Guilia admits to being abused by a much older man in her youth, while Professor Quadri’s wife Anna (Dominique Sanda), who he falls for at first sight, resembles a prostitute he encountered while on his honeymoon. Marcello finds it impossible to resist Anna, and even considers throwing his ideals away if she would run away with him. Of course Marcello’s love for Anna cannot overcome his cowardly nature. In her time of need Marcello does not offer to save Anna, he simply remains seated behind the locked car door and watches the events unfold. It is a powerful moment where Marcello foregoes love and desire in the name of a cause that is, unbeknownst to him, coming to an end.
The Conformist is the type of film whose true beauty and relevance does not fully show itself until after multiple viewings. It is on the second viewing that I found myself truly in rapture of Bertolucci’s meticulous framing of scenes. He creates a sense of grandness to each setting, whether on the streets of France or within seemingly cavernous offices, but manages to make the characters feel small and contained. His use of doorframes and hallways in particular are rather fascinating. One of the most sensual scenes in the entire film arrives when Bertolucci’s camera observes a confident and cool Anna walking away from her husband’s office with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. Our eyes are drawn to the centre of the screen as if watching a model strut down the catwalk.
Regardless of whether he is utilizing an evaporating shadow, using mirrors and windows to add flare to Marcello’s conversations with both Anna and Guilia, or providing a sense of pending danger to a car ride in the woods, there are numerous visual moments to savour in The Conformist. While it would be easy to list off the countless number of films that have cribbed from The Conformist’s playbook, Bertolucci needs no such reassurances. The film confidently stands on its own feet as masterful and mesmerizing today as it did forty-five years ago.